Reichenbach’s empirical axiomatization of relativity
A well known conception of axiomatization has it that an axiomatized theory must be interpreted, or otherwise coordinated with reality, in order to acquire empirical content. An early version of this account is often ascribed to key figures in the logical empiricist movement, and to central figures in the early “formalist” tradition in mathematics as well. In this context, Reichenbach’s “coordinative definitions” are regarded as investing abstract propositions with empirical significance. We argue that over-emphasis on the abstract elements of this approach fails to appreciate a rich tradition of empirical axiomatization in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, evident in particular in the work of Moritz Pasch, Heinrich Hertz, David Hilbert, and Reichenbach himself. We claim that such over-emphasis leads to a misunderstanding of the role of empirical facts in Reichenbach’s approach to the axiomatization of a physical theory, and of the role of Reichenbach’s coordinative definitions in particular.